1947 – 2022
This post is part of the Donna G Project. This is written to and for my boys.
Imagine pitching this idea to a 10- and 12-year-old boy.
“Guess what we’re doing Memorial Day weekend?”
“The beach with all our friends!?”
“Waterpark? Carnival? Disneyworld!?”
“Nope! We’re gonna go stay in a 5-room apartment full of expensive glassware, so you can’t run around. There are grouchy neighbors, so you can’t be loud. And we’re gonna hang out with a 70-year-old man. Doesn’t that sound amazing?”
My kids would have mutinied. I would have had to drag them to the car.
But when I put it this way…
“We’re going to see Uncle Bob!”
Pure elation. They would literally cheer.
Since they were born, they’d been going up to Boston once, sometimes twice a year. Sometimes it was just us; sometimes we’d coordinate with my brother’s family. And it was a total highlight. With Bob in the lead, accompanied by our Aunt Joan, we’d go to museums, do walking tours, take day trips to Plymouth or Salem or the Mansions of Newport. Bob would tell stories from their childhood and point out all kinds of amazing things. He knew everything about Boston and shared it with such joy and color – part tour guide, part tourist, all love for each one of us.
We’d wrap up the day with cocktail hours back at his place where Bob would break out a titanic bowl of Bugles and a vat of creamy clam dip. Or we’d go to Mt. Vernon Restaurant where Joan taught my boys how to eat lobster and the whole staff knew Bob like a relative.
The conversation was always warm and lively and so so fun. Bob would project photos from trips he’d taken and point out things he’d learned or seen. He’d tell stories of his crazy neighbors that had us all in hysterics. And he loved hearing about what the boys had going on. He’d speak to them with the intelligence as if they were adults, but with the pure adoration reserved for children. They absolutely loved being around him.
Part of it was always the presence (or rather, absence) of my mother. The boys never got to meet her, so in some way Bob was her. I know it always felt that way to me. Time with him was holding onto a piece of her.
My favorite time of the visits was always the mornings.
I’d get up, and in the quiet go to Bob’s kitchen in search of coffee and something to eat. Bob was a light sleeper and a hyper-vigilant host, so he’d soon be there in his bathrobe and slippers, brewing coffee and pulling out boxes of breakfast cereal. Bob and I would get a solid hour together, talking in hushed tones. I’d share things going on in my life that I didn’t even realize were things until I started talking about them. He’d tell me about things he’d read recently, or situations with friends, or talk about times from his childhood or college. Not heavy talk, but heart talk. Easy talk. Talk real and effortless. There in a bubble with my uncle, eating stale Cheerios and drinking coffee with skim milk.
But for most of my life, it wasn’t just Bob we were visiting. It was Bob and Bill.
I don’t remember specifically how they met. I think it was a party. Apparently Bill kept telling Bob that they were too far apart in age. Bill was too old. But Bob would not be deterred. My brother actually put it perfectly:
“If one of them had been born in Antarctica and the other in Aruba, they still would have found each other.”
Bill was originally a redhead, but I only knew him with bright white hair that sat atop an absolutely massive head. It was like a built-in top hat. He spoke with a booming voice and the thickest South-Boston accent you could imagine. And he wielded that voice like a glorious fire hose; he was the consummate life-of-the party, jeering, celebrating, braying, singing – my God, he loved to sing. The man would break into song out of nowhere and often in public places. It was like he was trying to start a sing-along. In fact, sometimes he did!
Bill was a fascinating blend of formality and irreverence. He was dignified, but dirty. He was an absolute blast to be around. Growing up, he was a package deal with Bob, there for holidays and reunions. He spent every Thanksgiving at our house and would bring chocolate turkeys for each place setting.
They came out…get this…in 2004. Years after everybody had known for years. We gathered for my nephew’s christening in Minneapolis, and we got together for dinner the evening before. Bob started to speak with a shaky voice as he held up a shaky hand and twirled a wedding ring. The man was beside himself with nerves. But before he got three words out we all leapt out of our chairs in celebration, madly hugging a red-faced Bob.
Chris and I immediately called Bill, who was stunned and shy and surprised as we shouted our good wishes at him. He stuttered out his response uncertainly, completely caught off guard.
But there was sadness that accompanied that joy. One reason they’d decided to get officially married was because Bill had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. The symptoms were becoming more apparent each time we saw him.
Bill struggled to get up out of a chair, sometimes requiring multiple starts before his body finally obeyed.
His walking declined. After a dinner out, Bob would go get the car and bring it out front, then come in for Bill. Bill would shuffle along, holding Bob’s arm until Bob could get him settled in the passenger seat. The whole thing was tenderness itself.
Hallucinations followed, often in the form of “Bad Bob” – who was the hallucinatory version of Bob, but this version was mean to Bill. Bill talked openly about Bad Bob, laughing about the whole thing and telling us all about Bad Bob’s antics.
One of my last memories of Bill was at a New Year’s Eve celebration at a house in Albany. The house was filled with people, and Bill spent the entire night parked in the same chair, immobile and barely able to speak. But I’ll be damned if the man didn’t manage to get himself about eight perfect Manhattans. When he and Bob finally left, it took Bill 15 minutes to get out of the chair and another 15 minutes for Bob to walk him to the car.
“I told you to take it easy on the booze!” an angry Bob ranted – most assuredly not a hallucination.
Bill died in 2012, which was awful. But Bob handled it in the true spirit of Bill. Bob threw a blowout party to celebrate Bill’s life. Three distinct groups of people came to the event – people from Bob’s life, people from Bill’s life, and then four tables of gay men from their semi-secret life. Three families who had sadly never met. Bob led us all through a night of roaring sing-alongs interspersed with people from each camp telling their best Bill stories. By the time they cleared the dinner plates, we were all co-mingling and celebrating as one big family.
The final speaker of the evening was Bill’s niece, a woman about my age. She made it clear that she was speaking on behalf of Bill’s entire family.
“I want to recognize one of the best things about my Uncle Bill – and that’s the fact that he brought Bob into our lives.”
Over the past few months, as we’ve combed through Bob’s possessions, we made two amazing discoveries about the two of them.
The first was an album from Bob and Bill’s 25th anniversary celebration. It was from 1996, well before they were out, so they celebrated with only their group of gay friends.
Looking through the photos, I found myself crying at the unfiltered joy and connection that absolutely radiated from them both.
On the other hand, it made me so sad that they had to celebrate in secret.
The second discovery was a treasure trove of literally hundreds of cards and letters that Bill had sent Bob over 40+ years of their relationship. Christmas cards, Easter cards, St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day, birthdays….they lived together, yet year after year, card after card, Bill kept telling Bob how much he loved him.
We were in Atlanta; Alex was diving in Nationals. This was July of 2018. I was in the hotel lobby when Bob called.
He’d passed out earlier that year, so they’d scheduled him for a brain scan. He was optimistic and sure it would be nothing. But now Bob’s voice was breaking as he told me about the results.
“It’s not what we’d hoped for…”
He had a brain tumor. He gave me some details, but he didn’t know much. I asked him a few times if there was anything I could do, and his answer was the same every time.
“Just come see me. That’s what you can do.”
My brother and I made it to Boston a few weeks later and we spent an amazing few days with Bob, Joan, and a few other folks. And I will tell you, there is something remarkable about a cancer diagnosis in that it cuts through the bullshit. And yes, there was crying and holding hands and hugging, but mostly there was joy. We were all joyful to be there with each other; Bob’s illness just made us appreciate and cherish it all the more.
From there, Bob spent the next three years going through radiation and chemo – and having basically no issues whatsoever. He experienced no side effects, no hair loss, no nothin’. You’d think the man was taking a course of breath mints. He went to Cuba, took a cruise in the Czech Republic. And his scans continued to look good. We were all thrilled. But it didn’t last.
It started to catch up with him. He had to cancel a visit because his new medication had him absolutely exhausted. A few months later he had another scan and the doctors saw some tumor growth. Then COVID hit, which was particularly hard on him – he was such a garrulous, social creature. The combination of medications, a growing tumor, and the isolation was visibly aging him. We’d arrange dinners over Zoom, and we could tell he was less sharp and more stressed.
As COVID lightened up we saw improvements. He was back to being social. Every time you’d call him he was out doing something with someone. He wasn’t slowing down in spite of his scans showing continued tumor growth.
We finally pulled off a visit at Easter last year. Bob was stressed out and overjoyed at the same time as he frantically tried to “host” the way he used to. He lost the packet of glaze for the ham he was cooking and was beside himself. It wasn’t until and dinner was over (and we got Bob drunk) that he finally relaxed and enjoyed the company. It was a magic night, actually. I saved one of the wine labels.
We were in an AirBnB in Seattle that August when he called me. I was in the bedroom. He had met with his doctor. There was nothing left they could do. He was coming off treatment. This was the end.
I told him how much I loved him. I hung up the phone, sat down on the end of the bed, and sobbed so much and so loud it shocked me. Some of it was for losing him. But also, he had kept my mother alive in some ways, and losing him would be losing more of her as well.
His decline from that point was precipitous.
My brother and I came to see him. Chris got all his passwords and access to all of his accounts. We got him to lay out all his wishes. Where did he want to be buried? Did he want a church service? What were his conditions for life-saving measures? What did he want to be remembered for? It was intimate and wonderful. I can remember exactly where I was sitting and how the couch cushions felt underneath me.
A month later, Jack and I made it up on the pretense of a Red Sox game, but it was really for Jack to see Bob. The night we got there, Bob pulled out a box he’d discovered in the back closet. It had all kinds of items from his childhood — photos, bank statements, letters, report cards. The three of us spent the evening with our heads bent over a cardboard box of treasures that smelled like dust and like Bob.
Shani and Alex swung through Boston to tour colleges and arranged to bring Bob dinner, but the night before, Bob called and told Shani he’d messed up the calendar. He had a meeting with a hospice nurse that day and would have to cancel.
Then he called right back and said, “What am I thinking? The nurse can wait! Come over!”
I made a quick solo trip to help him sort through hospice decisions, but by the time I got there, Aunt Joan had worked it all out. So I drove Bob to Outback steakhouse for dinner. It was loud as hell, but somehow it didn’t matter. We spent the meal telling each other how much we meant to each other, crying occasionally, holding hands under the table, and of course, laughing.
The final visit came toward the end. My brother and I stayed almost a week. The hospice folks had brought a bed into the living room by then and Bob no longer had the strength to stand. Our Aunt Joan was staying there full time. The previous week she had arrived to check on Bob, assessed the situation, and without so much as a change of clothes she moved in for the duration. We had 24-hour care, but still Bob brushed the aide aside every time and called for Joan.
By that point, we were all in perfect lockstep. Joan was in charge of Bob’s care. Chris dug through every bill and record he could find. I wrote Bob’s enormous network of friends and arranged visits. I also called the funeral home and got that business started.
Bob was shrunken and frail, his voice reduced to a gargle. We fed him coffee ice cream with a plastic spoon or sat holding his clammy hand.
I was in Chicago for work, checking out of a hotel, when Joan called to tell me he had passed. She was with him when he went.
A few weeks later we all gathered for his wake and the “celebration of life” that Bob had told us he wanted. We sang songs and told stories. My nephew, Tucker, told a story of when Bob visited them at their farm in Iowa. Anytime the turkeys got near Bob’s rental car, he would rush out the door with a broom and frantically chase them off. Bob’s friend John told a story from their childhood where they had ditched school to go see Love on a Pillow starring Bridgette Bardot, and theorized that it was the reason they’d both ended up gay. My Aunt Joan received a well-deserved standing ovation.
I will say this…there are uncles. Uncles who you see at family gatherings and you genuinely like catching up with. But then there are uncles. These are uncles who become almost as important as a parent. They give you unconditional love, but without the obligation to raise or discipline you. They are safe like no other person in your life really is.
Bob was that to me and he was one of the most important people in my life.
When I describe him, the word I always come to is generous – and not in the give you stuff way (although he was that too). Bob was generous with himself and with his time. He was generous with his kindness and his investment in you. He was generous with his friendship.
Toward the end I copied his entire email address book and sent a mass email. The responses were incredible. Old friends of his called me. I spoke with a man who’d been married in Bob’s living room. Bob’s insurance agent called – Bob had made friends with his insurance agent! I talked with a woman who had met Bob just two years ago and the two of them had become close. I laughed as I spoke with her. “I haven’t made a new friend in 20 years, and here’s Bob and you from just last year!”
And yes, it was wonderful that I got to see him at the end and tell him how much I loved him, but the fact is, I had told him a thousand times before that.
And yes, we had a wonderful “celebration of life” to honor Bob. But the reality was that Bob had been celebrating life for years.
He celebrated life by singing show tunes for hours at The Napoleon Club. He celebrated life by loving Bill for 40 years. He celebrated life by getting back out there on the dating scene in his 70s. He celebrated life by playing board games with kids on New Years Eve and banging pots and pans at midnight. He celebrated life by spontaneously travelling to Ireland and Russia and Argentina and Spain to meet up with his nephews and their wives. He celebrated life by purchasing top-of-the-line margarita machines, pasta makers, roasting pans, and bread makers – none of which he ever used even once. He celebrated life at galas and operas and walking tours and parties and cruises and reunions and cocktail hours with Bugles and clam dip.
The reality is that we all attended his “celebration of life” well before that evening in December when we gathered in his honor.
The reality is that Bob Gallagher’s life was a celebration of life.
So, for you boys who knew him well — I will end with some advice.
The first piece of advice comes from me.
1) The day will come when I’m the one lying shriveled and dying in that bed and it is the two of you making decisions and sorting through the arrangements. And having just gone through it with Bob, I would tell you that you don’t need to approach it with dread or with fear. Because with Bob, it was not that at all. In fact, it was one of the great privileges of my life.
When that time comes, my advice to you is that you embrace it for all it’s worth. Embrace the beauty and the gravity. Embrace the finality. Plus, hell, it’s the last thing we’ll ever get to do together, so let’s agree to make the absolute most out of it. And while we’re at it, let’s agree to make the most out of all the days that come before it as well.
The second is from Bill
2) Love is not your words, it is not the intensity of your feelings, and it is most certainly not a piece of paper issued by the government.
Love is your actions. Love is a choice. Love is sustained by constant and deliberate effort. Love is action.
Bill left literally hundreds of documents to prove this is true.
The final piece of advice comes from Bob.
3) On the last day I spent with Bob, I asked him if he was scared.
“Not at all,” he immediately replied.
Then he took a breath.
Then he said…
“I have no regrets whatsoever about my life.”
Make your life a celebration of life.
5 thoughts on “About My Uncle”
Thank you for sharing this story of a like well lived and so full of lov..
I had hear a little about the beloved Uncle Bob, I am sorry he is passed but inspired and grateful to hear of the love you and your family got to share with him.
Eileen’s college roomie, Judy
Beautiful, just beautiful.
My Bill and I are so lucky and grateful that you sent this. Such an amazing tribute to our friend of over 50 years. We miss him and think of him often. Recently we were in Barcelona at the Sagrada Familia that Bob lived so much…he gave us wine glass from there to share wine with him during Covid Zoom…how much we wanted to share the trip with him. Thank you for sharing so many parts of his life with us.
Sums up Bob and Bill perfectly. Miss Bob greatly.
Thanks for sharing this Mike.
Mike, what I wonderfully heartfelt and moving piece you wrote about Bob! Just reading it brought tears to my eyes and that aching pain in my heart. I met Bob just 10 years ago, and he became one of my dearest friends, as you know. But I sorely wish I had met him 40 years ago and gotten to know Bill and come to be a part of their circle of friends over the years. I wish I had had the opportunity to get to know you and Chris as well. Alas, I have to settle for those 10 years, but every bit of that time spent with Bob was a treasure. The gift of having had Bob in my life is immeasurably worth the pain of losing him.